Friday 21 December 2007

Dear Father Christmas

I’ve tried to be very good this year so I think I deserve a present. In fact the whole Consumer Watchdog team have been good boys and girls. We’ve all worked very hard to help the consumers that call us to sort out their problems, we’ve stuck up for customers who have been abused and we’ve not defamed anyone at all. Not one, all year. In fact we’ve never defamed anyone so surely that deserves a little something?

Our biggest success financially this year was helping to get getting a customer P10,000 compensation for a car he bought that turned out not to be exactly what he’d been told. However we’ve also got people free meals in compensation for disasters, refunds of bank charges, replacements for goods that were faulty or generally not fit for their purpose and even free ice cream.

To be fair, a lot of this was actually quite easy. When we called companies to explain that we’d had a complaint about them the vast majority were eager to help sort it out. I know in most cases this was because the managers are actually quite decent people but I also know that a few were just terrified they would end up being named in Mmegi. Whatever the reason these guys fixed the problems very quickly. A smaller number proved a little more difficult though. It took a number of increasingly forthright calls, emails, faxes and letters from us before they realised that we simply weren’t going to shut up. Only then did they see reason and do the right thing.

I confess that a few got away with it and are still up to the dirty tricks to this day. There’s the company who encourage customers to join their scheme without letting them see a contract until the moment they sign it. That’s the contract that contains the “irrevocability clause” that means that once they’ve signed the contract they can never leave. Never. Not ever.

However I don’t feel too bad about that lot. In our meeting with them after they threatened to sue us for defamation because we had warned the public about their nasty little habits one of their senior managers repeatedly said quietly to one of our white, male team that horrendous phrase:

“You know, these people…”

Our tip for the year. Whenever a melanin-deprived, pre-1994 bigot uses that phrase they actually disclose what they really are. They are the sort of people who deserve to be taken to the border and thrown over it.

Back to the good news. Several people who had taken loans from Blue Employee Benefits contacted us because they felt confused and concerned by the terms of the loans they had taken out. We contacted Blue and almost within moments one of their most senior managers was in our office apologising profusely and promising to fix each problem. Proof if we needed it that the majority of South African companies that come to Botswana to make money do so in an honest, fair and open way. They also respond very well when, every so often, something goes slightly wrong.

So anyway what do I want for Christmas?

Well a new Apple MacBook, a top of the range Jaguar and a really authentic Greek restaurant in Gaborone would be nice but they’re just not going to happen so I’ll be more realistic.

Well, first we’d like to see stores that sell things on credit obeying the law. That’s not too much to ask, is it? The law states very clearly that if a store offers something for sale on credit then the total amount payable must be stated clearly and in “characters of similar size” to the cash price. How many of them actually do this?

Then we’d like the stores to whom we wrote two months ago explaining the law on this matter to respond to us saying they will now actually stop breaking the law. In fact, let’s not forget that one did! Ellerines wrote back saying that they were terribly sorry and promised to correct the situation at the first opportunity. Perhaps we should send Ellerines’ response to the other stores and suggest they just copy it and just change the headed paper? Alternatively the other stores could just write to us and say:

“Look we didn’t know. We promise to obey the law in future and stop insulting the consumers of Botswana. We’re going to fix it. Love and kisses. P.S. We’re sending you a free Apple MacBook and a Jaguar.”

I can dream, OK?

Finally we’d really like to see the Consumer Protection Unit prosecute the stores that ignore their legal obligations. They have been given enormous powers by the Consumer Protection Act and we’d like to see some of them actually being used.

Not only would we like to see prosecutions but we’d like to see a store manager or director experience the wonderful hospitality of the Prisons Service. Apparently the food isn’t so hot and the facilities leave a little to be desired but apparently they’ll make some very close friends while inside.

All it would take is one. One store manager who is prosecuted for offending our laws and the message will go out to the whole lot of them. The message that we are a sovereign nation with our own, sensible laws and a willingness to enforce them.

Wouldn’t that be a perfect Christmas present to all of us?

This week’s stars!

  • Ken at Barloworld for being “charming”!
  • M Israel, a security guard at Parliament for outstanding courtesy and friendliness.
  • Gaone at the Gaborone Station Post Office. According to our reader “the other day, when she realised that the queue was too long, she asked for those who only needed to buy a postal stamp and quickly dealt with them. Soon, the post office was EMPTY!!!
  • Bervely at Nandos at Game City for always being friendly and delivering great service.
  • All our Mmegi readers for sticking with us every year, for supporting us and providing us with the material!

Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year to all of us!

Friday 14 December 2007

Feeling secure?

Are you feeling secure? When you are at home, on the roads or out shopping do you feel secure? Do you have a comfortable feeling of safety, freedom from the threat of crime and that you are able to enjoy what the US Declaration of Independence delightfully describes as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

In the last few weeks we’ve been contacted by a range of readers who have all raised issues that relate to security in one way or another.

The first was a reader who, with his wife, took his sister-in-law and her husband out to the Walmont Ambassador hotel (yes, I still call it the Grand Palm too) for a meal to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. A total of 17 people had a thoroughly good time with excellent food and music from a live DJ. In total they spent nearly P2,000 on the evening but everyone thought this was money very well spent.

Before going their various ways the whole group decided to have their pictures taken outside the hotel so they could remember a great evening. This is where the disappointment began.

“No sooner had we started taking pictures than the security personnel pounced on us like wild dogs. They threatened to confiscate our cameras and delete all the pictures including those which were not taken at the hotel.”

The group all ended up leaving the hotel feeling very dejected and having a very bad last memory of the evening. Very sensibly our reader complained to the hotel the following day and copied his complaint to us. The response was excellent. As soon as he heard about the issue Greg Soutter, the General Manager of the hotel got in touch.

He told us that they certainly do NOT object to customers taking photos at the hotel. On the contrary they love it. It is, after all, free advertising. What business doesn’t want people showing off evidence of what a fine company they are, spreading the word about their excellent service and recommending them, all for free? Greg went on to assure the customer that the security guards in question would be identified and “removed from the property”. He ended up offering a very sincere apology and a promise of a fuller response as soon as he has finished a formal investigation.

All in all, a very good response. A company that realises that security guards are there to make customers feel secure, not to hassle them.

However, another reader had a different experience, this time in a book store in a major shopping centre in Gaborone. Entering the store with his son and carrying his son’s rucksack over his shoulder he was accosted by a member of staff who told him he had to leave the bag at the desk. Looking around and noticing that several other people were carrying bags, that every woman in the shop was carrying a handbag and that other children also happened to be carrying rucksacks he decided to take it personally, left the store and vowed in future only to shop in their much larger branch in Sandton City where he says “I’ve never been excluded”.

There is an important issue here. We all know and understand that stores have to protect themselves against theft. It’s not the stores, after all, that end up paying the price for all the stolen goods. It’s us, their honest customers, who pay higher prices as a result. However there are alternatives. Have an open policy about such matters. Put up a huge sign saying that bags aren’t allowed and provide a secure place to keep them. Employ security guards to discreetly watch over people. Install a security camera. Encourage your staff to watch the customers, not just as a security measure but to see if they need help or advice. If you visit a decent restaurant you’ll see that the managers and waiters do this instinctively. They’re constantly scanning the restaurant for empty wine glasses, plates to clear or customers who look like they want to spend more money. Exactly the same approach should be used in all stores and here’s a secret for store owners. You’ll make more money.

In short stores CAN find ways of protecting themselves against crime without treating their honest customers like crooks.

Finally another good news security story. Another reader emailed us and said:

“I’m bringing to your attention the most unexpected good service. My partner was involved in a car accident yesterday evening, I was about 100 metres behind him. I stopped and called 999. My call was answered by Officer Seoko, who assured me that he would have the police with me as soon as possible. He called twice more, to let me know that help was on the way, and a third time to make sure they were at the scene. Needless to say, I was highly appreciative of his courtesy and professionalism.”

Now this IS good news. We are too often dismissive of the work done by the Police. We often complain that the police are never there when we need them, although we are often just as quick to complain when they ARE there when we don’t need them. Working in the Police is sometimes described as “99% boredom and 1% absolute terror” and it’s great to hear that despite the stress of the job, the appalling pay and utter boredom of most of the work there are officers out there that still care about their customers. We’ll be writing to the Commissioner of Police to pass on the celebration.

This week’s stars!

  • Of course Officer Seoko from the Botswana Police Service for outstanding service.
  • Akanyang from FNB Kgale for going out of her way to help
  • Majidu at Office Depot for being really helpful

We still have Debonairs vouchers to give away. Our friends at Debonairs have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Debonairs voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 7 December 2007

Chavez or choice

You may have seen on the news recently reports of a temper tantrum experienced by Juan Carlos, the King of Spain, while he attended the Ibero-American summit in Chile.

Sitting near him at the conference table was Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela. Chavez had been loudly accusing the former Prime Minister of Spain of being a fascist. When the current Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, tried to point out that this was not entirely fair and that his predecessor had in fact been democratically elected (and also democratically evicted) Chavez started shouting and screaming. At this point Juan Carlos lost his regal cool, raised his royal digit and said "¿Por qué no te callas?" which means "Why don't you shut up?"

Not exactly normal royal language but every now and then I suppose Heads of State are allowed to be irritated and speak plainly.

Since this episode Juan Carlos has become a bit of a hero, not only in Spain but rather wonderfully in Venezuela as well. The phrase has since become one of the most popular downloadable cellphone ring tones in Spain and has been amusing YouTube viewers all over the world.

I think one of the things people like about the incident is that for the first time in a while someone has had the guts to stand up to Chavez the dictator and get the better of him.

Many people around the world have tried to present Chavez as some sort of folk hero because he says bad things about George W Bush (OK, I admit I do that myself) and has promised his people democracy, economic prosperity and an end to corruption. Well, that's all very laudable of course. Nobody can argue against any of those things. The trouble is that you don't achieve these things by trying to change the constitution to allow you to remain president for life, by rigging elections, by stifling your critics, by nationalising profitable companies that employ millions of Venezuelans and by employing your relatives in government positions.

The effects of what Chavez has done are clear. Since he took office murder levels have, according to The Economist, tripled. Transparency International, the organisation that always says such nice things about us in Botswana, says that Venezuela is one of the few countries where corruption is on the rise. Any apparent increase in national wealth has resulted from the dramatic increase in oil prices, not because the economy is actually doing anything more.

I think there is a lesson for us every time we see a country either democratically or by force convert to any philosophy that comes from Marxist, Hegelian, Leninist or Trotskyite origins.

Every time any country has attempted to implement a radically left-wing economy it has failed. There has never been a case where it worked. Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, North Korea, some of our neighbours in Africa and more recently in Latin America, every time it has been tried it has resulted in the opposition being shot and the people being left to eat grass.

Surely by now the lesson is clear?

What about the alternatives? Here's a challenge for you. Name any pair of liberal democracies that have ever waged war against each other. I don't mean in their feudal pasts, I mean while they were liberal democracies.

OK, it's a trick question. It's never been known.

The funny thing is that the last time I challenged someone with that question they suggested the Anglo-Boer War. That's the war between two nations which allowed only men to vote, in South Africa only white men. So that really doesn't qualify, OK?

No two real democracies as we know them have ever gone to war. Every communist nation has ended up with either starvation, oppression or both.

Simple, surely?

So anyway, what has any of this got to do with consumers in Botswana? Because there is one thing above all that separates the extreme left agenda from the liberal democratic one. Choice. I believe that all intelligent people want some level choice in their lives. They want to be able to live where they choose, to shop where they choose, to live with who they choose. They want to be able to decide for themselves how they live their lives and so long as they don't offend their neighbours they want to be left alone.

I don't think it's too much of a leap to say that the same principles that apply to the oppressed peoples of the world, whether under radical left oppression in Venezuela or fascist oppression in Burma, apply to consumers everywhere. We don't want to be told what to do by anyone other than our wallet. We want to be free to do as we please. We want to get a job and to leave a job when we want to.

So next time you're deciding whether to eat at Nandos or Wimpy, or you can't decide whether to go to Apache Spur or Primi Piatti remember that you are exercising your freedom in exactly the same way as when you post your election slip into that box to decide who governs us.

So do it with pride and remember those who wish they could do something that simple.

This week's stars!

  • Kenanae Makula at the Riverwalk Branch of Barclays Bank who apparently is pleasant, professional and lovely.
  • Greg Soutter at the Walmont Ambassador (yes, like you I still think of it as the Grand Palm) for responding very well to a complaint.
  • Boiki Tema from First National Bank for being charming and enthusiastic and for selling FNB products even when you meet him at a party!

We still have Debonairs vouchers to give away. Our friends at Debonairs have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Debonairs voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we'll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.